History of the Steering Wheel

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The steering wheel is one of those instruments we pretty much take for granted. I mean, who ever heard of a car without such a thing? Just think about it: when buying a new vehicle, all of us bring hell upon the salesperson, asking all kinds of more or less ridiculous questions about the most trivial of topics, from the fabric on the seats to the number of bolts holding the wheels in place, or the composition of the paint. Almost never do we think to ask about the steering wheel.
There seems to be a general perception that the thing magically came to be at the same time the car did. As if it was somehow already in the mind of the car's inventors as the perfect tool to make the new contraption work. That's not entirely true. Believe it or not, the steering wheel did not come to be at the same time as the car. It was adopted later, after it became obvious a round shape to control the direction the car is going was perfect.

Back in the early days of the automobile, there was really a single man-made type of machine man himself controlled: boats. Sure, they had trains, but those ran on tracks, so little steering was needed, and they had carriages, but those turned simply by pulling the harness, itself attached to some sort of animal, to the left or right.

So for the creation of a device meant to steer a car, boats were the only true source of inspiration. Most of them changed direction through human-activated rudders, controlled by means of tillers, but there were also some steered through something called helm.

Early automobiles did use a tiller to steer, but by 1894, this method became more and more ineffective. So car builders began replacing the tillers with ship-inspired helms. The steering wheels used in cars were simpler and smaller than their nautical counterparts, and first became noticed during the Paris-Rouen race. It was then when a Panhard driven by Alfred Vacheron was first recorded in the history books as using a steering wheel to turn.

BMW steering wheel
Photo: autoevolution
Because they were so easy to use meant that, by 1898, all Panhard et Levassor cars came equipped as standard with steering wheels. The principle quickly caught on, and similar systems started being used all over the world. In Britain, Charles Stewart Rolls bought a Panhard from France and implemented the idea into his designs. By 1899, the steering wheel fever expanded to the U.S., where Packard introduced it on one of its models. By the time the Model T arrived, this little piece of hardware was an essential part of the car.

From that point forward, the technology became the car's trusted companion. Its most common shape is that of a circle, and it has remained unchanged for more than a century now. And that's despite the efforts of some, including Tesla in more recent times, to reinvent the wheel, change its round shape, and call it a yoke.

Some things did change, though, over the years, and that includes the role the element serves. Now it's no longer a simple helm for the car, but has become a command center for the entire car and its systems. But let's take things one step at a time.

For a very long time, the steering wheel was nothing more than a wooden circle fitted in front of the driver to allow control over the directional movement of the vehicle. It had and it served no other purpose. And the way it worked was crude too, as the procedure was done mechanically: the driver pulled the round gizmo to the left or right, while the wheels that touched the ground opposed that on account of the friction with the surface below. That made steering a difficult task at times, especially when the car was stationary.

Citroen steering wheel
Photo: autoevolution
So the idea of power steering was born, and quite rapidly. G.W. Fitts received a patent for this all the way back in 1876, while a vacuum-based system was patented in 1904; in 1902, Frederick W. Lanchester patented a hydraulic power system in the UK. Yet, none of these ideas made it into production.

Experiments with what was to become the precursor of power steering began in the 1920s. Francis W. Davis, an engineer with the Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Company, ended up inventing the first such system as he was trying to make the life of truck drivers a little easier.

Coincidentally or not, it was the same nautical industry that inspired the wheel that sparked the rise of power steering in cars. Davis created his tech by taking inspiration from the power steering system used in ships, only with hydraulics. Once he worked his way around several problems he encountered during the development process, he managed to fit his system into a Cadillac.

Between 1931 and 1943, Davis received patents for five different inventions that are part of the power steering system. His invention was acknowledged by GM, which struck a deal with Davis to have the system fitted into further Cadillac models. But in 1934, due to the economic crisis, the contract was scrapped.

MINI steering wheel
Photo: autoevolution
Two years later, the Bendix Corporation took note of Davis' work and signed a deal with him to build and promote the product. By 1939, ten of Davis' hydraulic power systems had been built, but only two were sold. And those ended up in GM's backyard, as the company bought them to be fitted in experimental Buicks.

And then the war broke out, but contrary to what you'd expect, the development of power steering was not scrapped, but pushed into overdrive. The driving force for upcoming breakthroughs was, of course, the military, which not only wanted, but badly needed easy controllable war machines.

The Bendix-Davis systems first saw action on the battlefield in 1940, after being fitted into Chevrolet armored vehicles built for the British Army. By the end of the war, over 10,000 such machines were roaming the battlefields.

Chrysler began developing its own power steering after the war, but not from scratch. The company based its designs on Davis' expired patents, and the first home-brewed device was featured on the Imperial. The tech would come to be known as Hydraguide.

Jeep steering wheel
Photo: autoevolution
Seeing all that, and once again proof that competition is the driving force of any industry during peacetime, GM once again made a deal with Davis for the system. Being the behemoth that it is, GM quickly launched that into production and, by 1953, one million vehicles were built with this feature. The success was immense and instant: by 1956, one in four cars on the roads had power steering. By the next decade, 3.5 million such systems were sold.

Since the Davis era, a number of other types of power steering systems have been developed. Depending on what is used to power the steering wheel, the systems can be hydraulic, as Davis' was, electro-hydraulic, electric, and so on. Some manufacturers, like Citroen and AM General, patented their own technologies (DIRAVI and Servotronic, respectively). And we've all gotten so used to the tech that today non-power-assisted vehicles are almost nonexistent.

For a very long time, power steering was the only major change made to the wheel since its invention. Then came the airbag in the 1970s, when GM started offering the option as a built-in feature, at first in government-purchased automobiles. Then, nothing notable happened for decades, until the jumps in apparently unrelated fields led to the birth of the steering wheel as a control center.

Besides controlling the direction of the car, the only other role given to the steering wheel has been for decades that of a support platform for the horn activation switch (and even that only sporadically). It was only in 1960 that some carmakers began fitting operating switches on the cruise control onto the wheel. And that's about all that happened in this respect for the steering wheel over the next three decades. Then, in the early 1990s, advancements in infotainment technology and in-car gadgetry really took off.

Volvo steering wheel
Photo: autoevolution
The avalanche of buttons and switches needed to control the audio system, the car's computer, and so on meant interior car designers would have a hard time cramming it all onto the center console. They needed space for the buttons and switches and, most of all, they needed buttons and switches to be within the reach of the driver.

Obviously, their attention turned to the steering wheel, roughly the single in-car component which satisfied both needs. As a result, steering wheels began their transformation from rudders to control centers. They grew in size, as more space was required to accommodate the controls and wires which go with them. They exploded in terms of various looks, as the many needs of the engineers and designers dictated the shape.

In our day and age, the steering wheel is still very much around. Tesla's yoke and other futuristic designs will probably never catch on, but another major danger lurks ahead: autonomous vehicles.

These self-driving cars are already around, but none of them has yet removed the wheel from the equation. That's because all of these cars and the laws that govern them require human oversight and intervention in moving vehicles. But there are plans to make fully autonomous cars independent, and some vehicles are already being drawn up with no steering wheel, or at least with one that can retract and disappear from sight.

If and when that'll truly happen is anyone's guess.
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About the author: Daniel Patrascu
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Daniel loves writing (or so he claims), and he uses this skill to offer readers a "behind the scenes" look at the automotive industry. He also enjoys talking about space exploration and robots, because in his view the only way forward for humanity is away from this planet, in metal bodies.
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